Packing the perfect school lunchbox: what parents say

Parents everywhere are dusting off lunchboxes in readiness for a new school year. We asked families how they approach the daily task of school lunch prep. Here’s what we found.

A healthy lunch is essential to nourish and sustain growing bodies, so the content of a lunch box is an important element in a primary school child’s day.

A team of IPAN researchers wanted to find out how families with children aged between five and 12 pack kids’ lunches; what they believe makes a healthy lunch, and what might get in the way of including healthier food.

Almost 360 parents were surveyed for the study. Of these, 84 per cent said their child took a home-packed lunch to school every day. The main foods that were packed each day included:

  • Fruits (94%)
  • Vegetables (57%)
  • Sandwiches (54%)

Many lunchboxes also included less healthy, or ‘discretionary’ foods such as salty crackers (50%), sweet cookies or biscuits (48%) and/or chips (20%) each day or a several times a week.

Other core foods such as milk, meat and legumes were provided less frequently.

Parents said some of the challenges of packing a varied, nutritious lunch included concerns about food spoilage; the short time allocated for children to eat their lunches; and difficulty in coming up with new meal ideas. Children’s requests and preferences also played a role, with some children asking for easy-to-eat food or food that other children have in their lunchboxes.

Lead researcher Dr Janandani Nanayakkara said it was important to help parents overcome some of these challenges to pack a variety of fresh and healthy food for their children’s lunches.

“While it’s encouraging that lots of parents said they pack fruits and vegetables each day, we know that most children don’t meet the recommended daily dietary intakes for some core foods, including vegetables, meat and dairy,” she said.

“In fact, recent research has shown that discretionary food items contribute to nearly half (44%) of primary school children’s energy intake during school hours.”

Dr Nanayakkara said parents, schools, and policymakers should ideally work together to improve the nutritional value of school lunches, for example:

  • Providing adequate time for lunch breaks at school and refrigeration for fresh foods
  • Resources and education for both parents and children with lots of ideas for a variety of easy-to-prepare, affordable healthy lunches.

“We also want to explore how children feel about school lunches, and what would help them to choose healthier options,” she said.